The Year in Books
● by Robyn Ryle
In many ways, 2014 was not a particularly good year. Especially towards the end, things got bad. White cops killed black men without being forced to stand trial for their actions. We found out in horrifying detail exactly what our government has been up to with the release of the torture report. College campuses around the country continued to struggle with an epidemic of sexual violence and denial. By December, you might have found yourself counting down the days until 2015 and the chance to start again.
Thankfully, if you were looking for comfort and guidance in books, there were a lot of good ones to choose from. Here’s an eclectic sampling of a few that tell a good story while also helping us navigate the complicated social and political terrain of the coming year.
LEESA CROSS-SMITH Every Kiss a War
In this beautiful debut collection of short stories by Kentucky writer Leesa Cross-Smith, topics like race or gender or war hover at the margins. At center stage in this collection is love, in all its destructive complexity. Every Kiss a War is a delicious meditation on how love can tear us apart and make us anew. In “Sometimes We Both Fight In Wars,” the story from which the collection’s title is drawn, a veteran lives on a houseboat where his lover asks him to show her how to kill a man. In “Un Jour Comme Un Autre (A Day Like Any Other),” Sam, a white Kentuckian in Paris, marries and has a child with a brown-skinned, French woman named Margot, whose love for her husband and child cannot save her from self-destruction.
Each story is carefully crafted, with sentences like perfectly wrapped gifts that make you hesitate to pull off the paper. Inside, you find a world that ignores our expectations about people and place. This is not your stereotypical Kentucky of coal mines and hillbillies, but a multiracial landscape full of women and men who loom mythic and large above the pages. They threaten to step outside and offer you a glass of whiskey, and believe me, you’ll be tempted to take a drink.
Kiese Laymon How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
In his essay collection, Mississippi author Kiese Laymon gives us an honest and unflinching contemporary view into what James Baldwin described over fifty years ago as our country’s “racial nightmare.” Essays like, “Echo: Mychal, Darnell, Kiese, Kai and Marlon,” and “Epilogue: My First Teachers–A Dialogue,” are epistolary conversations about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, which echo the impassioned letter to his nephew with which Baldwin began The Fire Next Time.
In tone, essays like, “You Are the Second Person,” which confronts the racial terrain of the publishing industry, are like urgent stories whispered in the dark from the scary underground spaces of America’s social conscious. Like Baldwin, these essays turn to African-American musical forms for inspiration and style–in this case, the legacy of hip hop. The essays are multi-vocal and soaked in the rich flavor of pop culture and its importance to our lives. In “Eulogy for Three Black Boys Who Lived,” Laymon uses his own biography as a way to explore the importance of Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac and Tupac Shakur. Baldwin’s greatness as a writer lay in the ways in which he never shied away from the complexity of American history and our future, while still remaining optimistic about where we might end up. In these essays, Laymon demonstrates a similar courage and hope.
Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven
When it already feels as if the world might be ending, there’s nothing more comforting than a good post-apocalyptic novel. So lucky for us, this year’s Station Eleven may be one of the best. The apocalypse this time is brought about by a super-virulent bug–the Georgia flu. The end happens fast, stranding people in airports or holed up in an apartment in Toronto. There’s no time to say good-bye or to savor the small, precious moments of civilization–like eating an orange for the last time–before they are gone.
The novel moves back and forth in time before and after the end, focusing on the adventures of the Traveling Symphony, a Shakespeare troupe with a motto drawn from a Star Trek episode–“Because survival is insufficient.” This story is worth the read purely for the beautiful way in which Mandel captures the emotional poignancy of the end of the world in one short, “incomplete” list of what is lost. It is one of the best books of the year because it teaches us that even after the end of the world, our lives are still connected in ways we do not always understand.
Celeste Ng Everything I Never Told You
[Image at the top of this post: Celeste Ng.]
This is the kind of novel you can easily read in a lazy afternoon. It is smoothly written and deeply accessible. As with all great stories, there’s a mystery at its core–what happened to Lydia Lee, the oldest daughter of an interracial couple in a small college town in Ohio, who disappeared one night under mysterious circumstances? What does her family–her white mother, Chinese father and two siblings–know that they’re not revealing? What secrets does the town itself hide? On the surface, it’s a simple story. But the real mystery at the core of this novel is much deeper than that.
There are, of course, many things we don’t tell each other. The ways in which our hopes and dreams were taken from us by the constraints of being the wrong gender or the wrong race. The painful loneliness and claustrophobia that can be small-town life. You can enjoy this beautifully written novel over the course of an afternoon, but if you pay attention, the questions it raises will stay with you much longer
Claudia Rankine Citizen: An American Lyric
I’ve only read Claudia Rankine’s National Book Award Finalist collection of poetry three times now and it’s not enough. It is the kind of book you have to keep reading, over and over again, each time letting new words and new images filter from the pages into your skin.
The poems are partly an exploration of the medical term, John Henryism, coined by researcher James Sherman to describe the physiological costs of the stress caused by racism. Poem after poem recounts the grinding, bodily experiences of racism on a day-to-day basis, stories which Rankine gathered in interviews with friends, family and strangers. A mother and daughter move to a different seat in first-class when they find they are sitting next to a black person. A co-worker complains that the dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many good writers out there. Rankine highlights the ways in which racism leaves people of color stuck in a constant questioning of their own experiences–“ Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?”
The poems are all written in the second person and there is something hopeful there. “You” are experiencing these micro-aggressions. “Your” body is the one that takes the beating. The poems suggest that though we do not all pay the same price for living in a racist world, there is certainly a price that all of us pay.
[Robyn Ryle is a writer who also teaches sociology at Hanover College. She has essays and stories at Gawker, CALYX Journal, Stymie magazine, and Bluestem magazine, among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.]
Carrie Newcomer’s Favorite Reads of 2014
ANTHONY DOERR All The Light We Cannot See
A story set in WW II-era Germany and France. A sensitive study of good people caught in tragic circumstances. The title refers to a radio broadcast one of the character hears about the brain’s power to create light in darkness, an idea that expands and resonates as the story unfolds. A beautiful and haunting work.
Simon Van Booys The Illusion of Separateness
This story is written in prose as spare as poetry and explores how lives are entwined and touched in ways known and unknown. In this compelling tale one man’s act of mercy changes the lives of a group of strangers, who eventually discover the astonishing truth of their connection, and that in our darkest moments of loneliness, we are not really alone.
Christina Kline Orphan Train
Orphan Train is a powerful and historically detailed novel of tragedy and resilience, of second chances and unlikely friendship. This book alternates between 1929 and current day and a friendship that blossoms between a young girl living in the state foster system and a 91 year old woman who survived being sent by orphan train to the rural Midwest.
Mary Oliver Blue Horses
A lovely new collection of poetry by poet/mystic Mary Oliver. In this collection she delves deeper into the rich imagery and spiritual dimensions of our daily lives, particularly the natural world. Oliver’s poetry is visionary, humorous, gentle, and always honest. She reminds us that paying attention is our first and most important work.
Naomi Klein This Changes Everything
In this provocative book, Naomi Klein, speaks clearly and eloquently exposing many of the myths that are clouding the climate debate. Addressing the climate crisis now facing us we cannot rely on old models of profit and growth, it will require that we break every rule in the “free-market” playbook: reining in corporate power, rebuilding local economies and reclaiming our democracies. Although real climate information is disturbing, ultimately it is a positive book about reframing abundance and that people are capable of meeting the challenge, and many already are in surprising and inspiring ways.
John O’Donahue Anam Cara
A beautiful and mystical work by Celtic priest and poet John O’Donahue. In Anam Cara, Gaelic for “soul friend,” O’Donahue describes with profound insights the themes of friendship, solitude, love, and mortality.
Also, if you are in the mood for some well done beach books, the following are great reads. The Storied Life Of A.J. Fickry by Gabrielle Zevin, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, and The Circle by Dave Eggers and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.